Liz Lempert signs the Mayors’ Monarch Pledge

The second graders at Johnson Park Elementary School are advocates for the monarch butterfly. After learning of its miraculous migration each year to the mountains of central Mexico, they raised monarchs from egg to the pupa stage, though none made it to adulthood.

“With the help of Johnson Park’s gardener in residence, Deb Gries, we researched reasons why the monarch butterfly population is declining in New Jersey and other states,” said second-grade teacher Geri Bustillo, who ran the monarch butterfly unit with teachers Kelly Albany and Jennifer Finn. “We discovered that one of the main reasons is a shortage of milkweed, this species host plant. Monarch caterpillars only eat milkweed and the adult butterflies lay their eggs on it. We also discovered that many people and businesses are unknowingly contributing to this problem by cutting down milkweed for aesthetic purposes.”

To take action in and outside of school, the second graders practiced their penmanship and wrote individual letters to Mayor Liz Lempert urging her to sign the Mayors’ Monarch Pledge. The pledge is an initiative headed by the National Wildlife Federation to encourage municipalities throughout the country to help preserve the life of these precious and majestic insects. According to the pledge, more than 1 billion Eastern monarch butterflies migrated to Mexico 20 years ago – since then their population has declined by 90 percent. In winter 2014, only 60 million made the voyage, which scientists attribute to the loss of summer breeding habitats in the U.S. and the loss of winter habitats in Mexico.

The pledge encourages mayors to take a stand and citizens to take notice. By signing it, each mayor commits to take action in at least three ways provided by the wildlife federation, which has 25 options in three categories from which mayors can choose. After receiving an outpour of pleas from JP students, Lempert was happy to sign the pledge and did so May 26.

“Their letters were amazing. I was blown away that they were written by second graders,” Lempert said. “Usually at that age, the teacher writes the letter on the board and kids copy it. But each letter was unique. It was clear they had learned a lot about monarchs and were able to write persuasively why Princeton should take action.”

Lempert sees the campaign as an opportunity to incorporate better practices into existing municipal plans or ordinances, such as including plants beneficial to pollinators in landscaping projects. At the next council meeting on June 13, Lempert plans to discuss the pledge with council as well as the environmental commission to see which actions can be added to municipal projects.

Taking action even further, the JP second graders did chores around their houses to raise money for a butterfly garden at the school, which will be filled with milkweed and perennials to help monarchs feel comfortable calling JP home during all stages of development. When the garden opens, Lempert will issue a proclamation, one of the actions provided on the federation’s list, about awareness and the species’ need for habitat. She also plans to provide resources and educational materials to residents to know what plants are best for their own backyards.

To learn about wildlife you can help protect, visit

About Erica Chayes Wida

Erica Chayes Wida is a writer, mom, and complete zealot when it comes to poetry, paella and globe collections. After graduating with a degree in Anthropology from UCLA, Erica moved to Italy where the seasons and old architecture inspired her journey back to the East Coast. Since then, she and her husband have created a nest egg locally and, over time, developed a rather grand love affair with the town of Princeton. Erica is senior editor at The Princeton Sun and enjoys fulfilling her Princeton affections on a daily basis. | View all posts by Erica Chayes Wida